Yet again, a scientific study has claimed to confirm an age-old gender stereotype.
This time the claim is that men are funnier than women. Of course, this is nothing new, but this study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, claims to offer the first systematic analysis of relevant evidence based on over 5000 participants. By backing up this controversial claim with scientific evidence, the study is giving ammunition to anyone who wishes to discourage women in comedy. Unsurprisingly outrage ensued when the researchers concluded that 63% of men were funnier than the average woman participating in the study. Comedians have hit out at the conclusion, citing fears that it will discourage women from pursuing careers in comedy where they are already woefully underrepresented as is clear from watching any UK panel show.
Explanations offered by researchers for why this disparity might arise have also raised eyebrows.
The study proposed two possible reasons for the sex difference: evolutionary and social. Social stereotypes, they say, may hamper women when it comes to humour but it has been the evolutionary explanation that has received the most flack, with comedian Eleanor Morton tweeting that “it’s just another boring ‘study’ that claims women don’t NEED to be funny to find a mate so we’re not. Nothing new”. And she has a point: explaining sex differences in terms of evolution and mate selection has a long and controversial history. However, while it would be possible to dissect the validity of the claims made by this study this would be to ignore a more fundamental issue which is at stake here.
Beyond its controversial results, this study has raised a deeper question about our research priorities and whether this line of research should have been pursued in the first place. How does society benefit from discovering who is the funniest? It seems an odd line of research to pursue when so many more pressing issues need addressing. Of course, not all scientific research has to carry the same significance but this question seems on par with asking who is funnier; Brits or Americans? Presumably a similar study could be conducted and a statistically significant result found, but ultimately there is no objective answer to such a question and so it seems a strange problem to address statistically, especially when large quantities of time and energy would be needed to answer it.
As well as being unnecessary, it seems that the potential of such a study to do harm is far greater than its potential to do good.
Let us imagine that the study had instead concluded that there was no sex difference, or even that on average women were funnier than men. It would be naïve to think that such research would be powerful in reversing stereotypes. The power of such research to entrench stereotypes is far greater. Even if the difference is small, such studies can be interpreted every which way and have a hugely negative impact upon societies. Perhaps the question we should be asking here is therefore not whether men are funnier but why do we continue to hunt down these small gender differences?
The next time a scientific study claims men are smarter, stronger or better drivers or argues that women are more empathetic, emotionally intelligent or better multi-taskers we should not just ask whether these claims are true. Of course, it is important to critically engage with such research and question its conclusions. But, beyond this it is important to question why we continue to hunt for these small differences when we know the power of research to confirm stereotypes in the minds of the public.
Do you agree? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Letter to the Editor’!